Five Places in Italy to Visit During the Holiday Season
The Christmas season in Italy is from the Immaculate Conception (December 8) to the Epiphany (January 6). And a visit to Italy during this time never disappoints. It is pure magic – think no crowds of tourists, sipping Italian’s version of hot chocolate under the light-strung streets, shopping the markets with family, and eating your way through all the sweet holiday food traditions.
Here are Five Places in Italy to Visit During the Holiday Season
Of course, Tuscany is magical all year round, but this region really doubles down during the holidays. Lights and decorations brighten storefronts, streets, and houses all across Tuscany upping the charm factor from the tiny hamlets to the big cities.
Siena hosts a weekend market in Piazza del Campo (usually the firsts weekend in December). "Mercato nel Campo" houses over 200 stalls that aren't just dedicated to Christmas, A popular event with Italians all over Tuscany, you will find many handicrafts, food and wine, gifts, decorations, books and other ideas that are perfect as Christmas gifts. The market is laid out in sections according to the product which makes finding what you need an Italian shopper's dream. They even have an international section. Other than that section everything is produced in Italy. And the festivities continue through the month with a Christmas Village near the Medici Fortress and a Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Palazzo Pubblico.
Arezzo is known for its monthly world-famous antiques fair, but the main piazza- Piazza Grande is home to the largest Tyrolean Market in Tuscany during the holiday season. Arezzo aptly names it "La Città Del Natale" the City of Christmas. Besides the"must-see" illuminated light show displays on the buildings surrounding the piazza, there are a host of ongoing performances, kid-friendly workshops, and lots of shopping. In the city center, you can also find the Brick Village which is a nativity scene built completely out of Legos. There is so much to see and do, I encourage you to stay at least one night here.
Florence hosts a great Christmas market in Piazza Santa Croce. It is a traditional German Christmas Market (The Weihnachtmarket Market) that has been hosted in Santa Croce for over 500 years. Here you can enjoy bratwurst, pretzels, and my favorite – hot mulled wine. Wander the open-air, traditional wood stalls for products from Germany, Austria, and Switzerland to name a few, and hand-made products by local Florentines. In addition, Florence puts on a gorgeous light show every evening with lights illuminating the walls of many major buildings and even the Ponte Vecchio. Florence also creates an ice-skating rink and has a festive ferris-wheel during the holidays. You can also visit the synagogue Tempio Maggiore to see the lighting of the Menorah. And finally, on January 6th, the city puts on a reenactment of the Gift of the Magi with the procession in traditional costume.
What sets Puglia apart from other areas of Italy during the holiday season is its location. As you can't get much farther south in Italy than the region of Puglia, you are guaranteed to have the warmest weather. While it’s not t-shirt weather it is a mild temperature compared to other regions. You are most likely to run into living nativity scenes because of the milder temps. And Puglia is also known for its colorful light shows and merry decorations during the holiday season.
Lecce is popular for its Christmas market that showcases local artisans from the region as well as hosting international stalls. In the first weeks of December, you will find the Chocolate Festival with chocolatiers from all over Italy. And in mid-December they have a Puppet Fair- a strongly held tradition that originated back in the 17th century as a one-day festival in honor of St. Lucia. This Christmas Market showcases statuettes of paper-mâché or terracotta crafted in the Salento tradition for your nativity scene.
Locorotondo, head to Locorotondo for an Instagram-worthy photo shoot you will see on every street. While it’s fabulous to witness these decorations during the day. Try to stay until sundown to experience the festive lights that make the decorations even cheerier.
Matera (in the neighboring Basilicata region) hosts a living nativity scene in the Sassi cave dwellings. Already a magical atmosphere regardless of the season, it's a must-see during the holidays.
ALTO ADIGE/ALPS AREA/DOLOMITES
Perhaps Italy’s most famous Mercatini di Natale (Christmas markets), made even more fairytale-like with the Alps as a backdrop are the markets in Trentino-Alto Adige. Trento and Bolzano make a great base to explore the most popular markets or what the Italians call “the big three” Trento, Bolzano, and Merano.
Trento, The Trento Christmas market is held in two of the historic city center's most popular squares, Piazza Fiera and Piazza Cesare Battisti. You can peruse through the “I sapori del mercatino,” the flavors of the Christmas Market, and know that this market is proud to be called a "green" market as the town strives to be sustainable in every way.
Bolzano, the city’s central Piazza Walter is host to multicolored wooden houses, with genuine products prepared according to the South Tyrolean tradition. In this market, you will find Christmas tree decorations, wood, glass or pottery handicrafts, loden clothes, and traditional food such as speck cured ham, Schüttelbrot flat-bread, and mulled wine. This is definitely a family-friendly market, with several children’s attractions, such as the miniature train, and a puppet theater. They have horse-drawn carriages, an ice skating rink, and entertainment for all ages.
Merano is the site of one of the most popular Christmas markets in Trentino-Alto Adige. They offer daily concerts, entrainment for children, and plenty of local food delicacies. Over 80 wooden stalls line the promenade along the Passirio river. At night with the lights that line the streets and the stalls reflecting in the river below the Dolomites, Merano looks like a winter wonderland.
Naples is famous for its presepi (nativity/manger scenes) but expanded to reflect life in the city of Naples. With hundreds erected across the city, you and your family can spend an entire week just visiting these manger scenes. They are truly a work of art, and some are generational traditions that have remained unchanged for centuries. The Museo Nazionale di San Martino has a collection of presepi dating back to the 1800s, and Via San Gregorio Armeno (lovingly known as Presepi Street by the locals) hosts a street market dedicated to them. This market has become so popular that they have closed it to pedestrian traffic only. On this street all year long, you can find stores with artists dedicating themselves to the art of hand-making statues for these mangers. It is fabulous fun to start a presepi of your own with figures from these local artists.
Christmas in Venice can be an ethereal affair when the clouds hang heavy over the canals. Eager children can look for Santa Claus roaming the canals in a gondola. Look for the Christmas market "Natale in Laguna" near the Ponte dell'Accademia in Campo Santo Stefano. In Campo San Paolo you will find another Christmas market and an ice skating rink. If you are in Venice during Hannukah, check out the large Menorah floating through the city canals and join in the festivities. Then head to Murano this island of the glass blowers for magnificent holiday decor and take home a few glass ornaments for your tree. If you are a beach lover, head to the coastal town of Jesolo (on the mainland north of Venice) where the locals create a Nativity Scene out of sand.
Even if you are visiting in late November, you may be able to catch a few markets and festive street lights wherever you may be in Italy. A lot of the markets start setting up the last week in November. Just know that the holidays are in full swing from the second week of December through the first week in January.
*CHRISTMAS TRAVEL TIP
Christmas Day and the next day-Boxing Day are national holidays in Italy. Few restaurants chose to be open, so plan ahead. Make reservations in advance for dinner and /or book accommodations with a kitchenette so you can cook when/if restaurants are closed…and shop ahead of grocery stores closing during the holidays as well
Locorotondo image courtesy of Lavaligiainviaggio/Pixabay